Episode 40: 10x10 - Midden

Up along the banks of the Damariscotta River in Maine there used to be two stadium-sized piles of oyster shells. Where did they come from? Why are they there? What can they tell us about the people that created them? There are mysteries in the middens!

 
Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

Arthur Spiess | Photo: Logan Shannon

A couple of weeks ago, Outside/In went on a field trip up to Damariscotta, Maine. In that town, about 15 miles upstream from where the Damariscotta river flows into the ocean, we met up with Arthur Spiess, Maine’s state archaeologist. We walked along a fairly unremarkable path that led down to the water, threading its way through overgrown apple trees.  

But there’s something special there, buried under just a few inches of soil.  

Sam Evans-Brown and Arthur Spiess walk down the path towards the Whaleback midden | Photo: Logan Shannon

Sam Evans-Brown and Arthur Spiess walk down the path towards the Whaleback midden | Photo: Logan Shannon

“That’s what’s left,” Spiess says. Close to the edge of the water there’s a little brook running down the hill, and the water has peeled back the layers of earth. Along the bank where you would expect to see just bare, brown, naked earth there was this jagged wall of shockingly white shapes. This shining, opalescent riverbank is actually made up of thousands of oyster shells, piled on top of each other.  

Arthur has actually dug all the way down into these shells, and found that they are still around six feet deep. And that is just the remnants.  

“There was an even larger pile of shells that went from the river, back to where those pine trees are… about a hundred yards, yeah. And it was 15 to 18 feet deep at the deepest.” Spiess explained. 

When you do the math, this comes out to more than 300 dump truck loads of shells. And some of these were monstrous oysters: 15-18 inches long with meat inside the size of your palm. 

There were actually two of these massive oyster shell piles in this spot: one on either side of the river. The spot where we stood was called the Whaleback Midden, and is now gone. It was mined for chicken feed in 1886. On the other side of the river is the Glidden Midden, which is still intact and continues to be one of the largest shell heaps in the country. 

So, what gives? Where did they all come from?

Middens, Not 'Mittens'

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.874

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.874

The short answer is that indigenous people left these oyster shells in this spot after taking them from the river, opening them up and eating the meat inside. Radiocarbon dating of shells at the very bottom of the pile show they were left there about 2,000 or 2,200 years ago, and judging from the types of pottery fragments that Art has found in the pile (and the absence of metal tools or other European goods) he thinks the pile stopped growing around 600 or 800 years before the colonial Europeans arrived.  

There was an even larger pile of shells that went from the river, back to where those pine trees are… about a hundred yards, yeah. And it was 15 to 18 feet deep at the deepest.
— Arthur Speiss

But who were the people pitching the oyster shells? 

Chris Sockalexis, the tribal historian of the Penobscot Nation and an archaeologist, thinks they were probably the ancestors of his people. The Penobscot are one of five tribes in Maine that collectively referred to themselves as Wabanaki, or ‘Easterners,’ and he thinks the people in this spot likely spoke a language very similar to their modern languages. 

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.872

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.872

But getting specific about how they lived is very difficult, since their tradition was passed down orally, and most of their stuff was made from biodegradable materials. And what’s more, indigenous people in this region lived in smaller groups with pronounced differences in their lifestyles. Some lived on the seacoast year-round, some were moving up and down river depending on the season, and each had their own rhythms that helped them find food year round.  

“You would have to say there are similarities coming from hunter-gatherer groups, but as they split off into kinship groups, each family would have their own certain mini customs and rituals, but when the larger aggregation comes together, they share that common bond,” says Chris. 

This is part of what makes these big piles of shells on the Damariscotta so amazing. Most shell middens are much smaller piles, maybe five feet deep and tens of feet across. But these are an anomaly. They’re so big, many people reason that they couldn’t possibly have come from one group: it had to have been many groups of people, over many years. 

But you all are the curious sort, and I can tell you want more than that. You’re hoping for a better explanation, but all we’ve got is shells. How do you answer these questions with nothing but shells?

Shells Can Tell You a Lot

So what happens when you dig in a giant pile of oysters? You find a lot of oyster shells, “Surprisingly,” jokes Arthur Spiess, “and some pottery fragments and some charcoal and a few fish bones.” 

“Not a lot,” he concludes. 

While this might not sound like much to reconstruct what life was like for the people who ate all of these oysters, it’s a heck of a lot more than you’ve got in a lot of other places. In huge chunks of the world—the Eastern US, Europe, Russia, Central America, Northern South America, Southeast Asia and Central Africa—the soil is actually slightly acidic. Meaning that over hundreds of years, the soil itself dissolves any human or animal bones buried in it. 

Map showing the acidity of soil, orange being acidic, blue being basic. Courtesy of: Kartesz, J.T. The Biota of North America Program (©BONAP). 2015.  North American Plant Atlas . Chapel Hill, N.C. 

Map showing the acidity of soil, orange being acidic, blue being basic. Courtesy of: Kartesz, J.T. The Biota of North America Program (©BONAP). 2015. North American Plant Atlas. Chapel Hill, N.C. 

But if you cast yourself back to high school biology, you’ll recall that shells contain calcium, and calcium is basic; the opposite of acid. 

“The shells neutralize the soil acid, make the soil sweeter. Raise the pH above 7, and bone is preserved. And we love these sites for that reason,” explains Bruce Bourque, the recently retired head of archaeology at the Maine State Museum. 

So just from the beginning, what little we can know about the past here, we know thanks to the shells. 

And actually, just from some bones and shells, we know more than you might think. For one, the piles are full of fire-rings, which are full of fish bones. “The fish bones that are in here are mostly alewives, and they come up here in the spring,” says Spiess. There are also scattered animal remains, including the jawbones of deer, the teeth of which can also tell biologists when they were killed. Similarly, oyster shells grow in predictable annual patterns that can be seen using a diamond saw and a microscope. Spiess says both the deer and the oysters were eaten in the late winter or early spring.

These remnant imply that people would gather by the banks of this river, right around the time of year that the alewives would return from the ocean and swim upstream to lay their eggs. This time of year is often known as the hungry time: as winter slogs towards its finish any food you managed to save up during the summer and fall is long gone and no new edible plants are starting to come up yet. Just the time of year when it would be really great to be able to go to a place where you can find oysters the size of your fist just sitting on the bottom of a river. 

The people who were doing this came from hundreds of miles away, if not more. We know that thanks to the stone tools and projectiles. “Some of these stones traveled long-distances, primarily from the Moosehead lake area and Munsungan area, but we also are finding evidence in shell middens that the stone to make the tools is coming from as far away as Pennsylvania, possibly Ohio, [and] Labrador” says Sockalexis. 

Looking southwest from site of Whaleback Shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.876

Looking southwest from site of Whaleback Shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.29.876

The Glidden Midden as seen from the opposite shore. 2017 | Photo: Logan Shannon

The Glidden Midden as seen from the opposite shore. 2017 | Photo: Logan Shannon

And so the middens grew, a few shells at a time. Each year the people who came added about a half a dump-truck to the top of the pile. And every year, when the people came back and set up camp, sometimes they would move in right on top of shells from years ago. All through the heap of shells, there are black stripes of soil and charcoal showing where people set up camp on top of the shells.  

Generation after generation, one on top of the next. That, as near as we figure, is where these piles came from.

Why Did the Pile Stop Growing?

Shell heap - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.24.3148

Shell heap - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2004.24.3148

As far as we know, the people who made these massive, impressive piles of shells, stopped adding anything to them before Europeans arrived in the Americas. So what happened? To understand the most common explanation, you have to remember that the world didn’t always look the way it looks now. 

“If you want to find the coastal campsites of people who were here 10,000 years ago you have to go offshore… and you’re in about 150 to 200 feet of water,” says Spiess, noting that indigenous artifacts are often found in the dredges of scallop fishermen.  

The oceans have been slowly rising ever since the last ice age. When the ocean was farther away, the tides didn’t use to reach all the way up stream. And just downstream of these two piles of oyster shells, the river runs over a strip of rocks. So we can imagine that at first those rocks were a waterfall.  

But then as the water rose, this river began to swell, and the bottom of that little waterfall got higher and higher until, during high tide, the waterfall actually started to flow backwards. Then during low-tide, the water would drop, and it would reverse again. Those rocks became a two-way waterfall.  

Now, a couple of rocks and rapids wouldn’t have stopped tiny oyster larvae, which drift with the currents, but they might have kept out their main predators, a snail called the oyster drill. So this little barrier could have been what allowed for a massive oyster reef to form—one big enough to draw bands of people every spring from hundreds of miles around, walking or paddling in canoes, to eat oysters. 

But the same effect that created the reef, may have led to its demise. As the centuries passed and the seas continued to rebound, eventually that two-way waterfall would have begun to flood out, and bit by bit, the oyster drill snails could have begun to slither their way through. Over many years that massive reef would have begun to shrink.  

“With the declining oysters, you kind of have to think, why would you go back?” asks Sockalexis. This, he argues, explains we don’t see any artifacts in the pile that would have come from colonial Europeans. 

But for some of the people who have studied this place, there are things that don’t quite add up.

The Alternate Theories

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

Deb Wilson | Photo: Logan Shannon

Now, not a ton of people have studied these particular shell middens, but one of them is Deb Wilson, who was an archaeologist for around 20 years. 

“This is unusual,” she says when we meet her next to the river, “but more importantly they’re unusual for what’s in them. For the amount of shell, usually we see stone tools, bone tools, arrowheads… a whole cluster of different kinds of artifacts, but in these sites, there’s really only one or two stone projectile points that have ever been found.”  

Deb reviewed the artifacts that had been saved from the Whaleback Midden when it was mined and started to notice some odd patterns. For one, there were a lot of bear scapulas—shoulder blades—in the animal bones in the pile. In some tribes, scapulas were and are used in this thing called Scapulimancy. 

“You know they’re flat, so they would heat them on a fire and interpret the way they crack. As they might be wanting to decide where to go hunting. And they would find paths, in the cracks in the scapula,” says Wilson. 

There are more clues that lead Wilson to think that this site is something more than just an especially large pile of refuse. There’s an account by an elder from the Penobscot written in 1893 that says this spot had been set aside for the old and infirm. There’s also an arrowhead she found that seems to have come from a whole different culture from the Midwest, “and those guys were mound builders.” 

The mound builders cremated and buried their dead under elaborate piles of earth. So Deb thinks that maybe there’s something else going on here. Like maybe some folks from the mound-building culture made their home here at some point, and in just a few generations, built and deliberately sculpted these massive shell piles.  When colonials arrived, they called the bigger of the two middens the Whaleback, because it looked like the profile of a massive whale. Deb thinks maybe that was intentional.  

To her, this place feels like it could have been a monument, of some sort. 

“There are scraps of folklore that talk about things that are white and pilgrimages to places where there are things that are white,” concedes Bruce Bourque. “So those ideas are out there. It’s possible. Maybe even plausible, but probably unprovable.” 

But Bruce Bourque has his own—perhaps unprovable—favorite alternative theory. Remember the nice tidy little story, about the rapids, the big reef, and the snail drill? There’s just one problem, with it. “It’s never been proven,” says Bourque. it’s just an idea that was published in a paper many years ago, and no one’s disproved it, but it’s plausible but unproven.  

His preferred hypothesis is that the indigenous people were adding to the pile all the way up through contact with the colonial Europeans and in reality it was shipyards, built up stream dumping sawdust into the river that put an end to oysters in this spot. He thinks the reason there have never been colonial artifacts found in the piles is white settlers had already disturbed the middens before they could ever be investigated. He thinks they took shells from the tops of the piles and burned them to make lyme for bricks.

We're in the Fog of Time

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2005.3.61.4

Whaleback shell mound - Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, PM #2005.3.61.4

This is what happens when you’re looking for clues in a two-thousand-year-old pile of oyster shells. To some archaeologists, this big pile of shells is just a big pile of trash that built up slowly and unintentionally. To others this pile could be something symbolic, or sacred. This is the fog of time, which just lets us see hints of shapes. Fuzzy outlines of something that might tell an appealing story. 

Deb Wilson thinks we’ll never know the answers to some of the most fundamental questions about what happened here.   

“I shouldn’t say this, but when we do archaeology I say it’s making up stories,” she says, laughing, “and these people were here, what? 1,500 years ago, 2,000 years ago? We, who watch TV, who live in houses with lights, who drive around in cars, can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to never know any of that. And just to be here, and paddle up and down the river, see the moon on these white shells.”  

It took the chicken feed mining operation only about a year to completely excavate the Whaleback Midden, which took more than a thousand years to amass. It was during this mining operation that the colonials, without anyone’s permission, unearthed human remains of the native people who created this pile. Fortunately—and uncharacteristically for the time—an archaeologist was hired to keep track of artifacts and human remains that were found in the pile, or we would know even less about this place.  

The good news is that the smaller pile on the other side of the river, the Glidden Midden, was purchased by a local land trust, and has been put into permanent conservation. But this doesn’t mean it’s safe. “It’s eroding very badly,” says Arthur Spiess. He says compounding the matter is the fact that the midden sits on top of clay, not bedrock. “Even if you put a rock wall down there, it wouldn’t last because the clay would go out underneath it.”  

One of the biggest piles in the country, one of the most remarkable monuments to indigenous peoples’ heritage is washing away. This is a story not just along the Damariscotta river. There are thousands of shell middens in Maine alone, and by their very nature they are close to the coast, and are at risk from rising seas.  

So when they disappear, the fog of time gets thicker, more impenetrable.  

For the descendants of the people who lived in this place, it’s tough to know how to feel about this. 

“It is disheartening to see some middens being washed away. But talking with certain elders... they were there for a purpose and if they’re getting washed away, they’ve served their purpose.” says Chris Sockalexis from the Penobscot, “I understand that logic, but as an archaeologist it’s tough to accept. I walk a fine line between tradition and science. Sometimes it’s tough, sometimes you have to choose I side. I try to stay right down the middle as much as I can, but sometimes it’s tough to live that dichotomy.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks to Peter Noyes and Jesse Ferriera of the Damariscotta River Association, that’s the land trust that owns and maintains the Glidden and Whaleback Midden sites, and to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, for letting us use their photos of the mining operation at the Whaleback site. And thanks also to professor Joe Hall of Bates College. 

Just as a matter of pure coincidence, the Peabody will be putting some of the artifacts from Whaleback on display starting Saturday June 3rd, if you’re interested in seeing them. 

This week’s episode includes tracks from: Sometimes Why, Velella Velella, Podington Bear, Blue Dot Sessions and Ari de Niro. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

S03|E04: Full Disclosure & Hoofprints on the Heart

In this week's episode, we look into the wonderful world of nature documentaries and find that truth behind the lens and the microphone is sometimes hard to find. Also, a heartwarming story from our podcasting friends in Montana, HumaNature, about a man who set out on a long journey with his trusty sidekick who just happens to be a real ass. 

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to hear us on the airwaves instead of just in your earbuds, consider asking your local public radio station to air the show! And if you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Parts 1 & 2

FullDisclosure.jpeg

Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 


Part 3

HumaNature: Hoofprints on the Heart

This week on the show we’re bringing you something a little different, a story from someone else. Caroline Ballard and Micah Schweizer started HumaNature, which is based in Wyoming, and they’re part of the team responsible for bringing us the story of a man, his walk through an unfamiliar culture and an unexpected friendship, in a couple of different ways. 

Jon set out on the longest, toughest walk of his life. But along the way, he met someone who helped carry the weight.

The piece was produced by Erin JonesAnna Rader, and Micah Schweizer and hosted by Caroline BallardHumaNature is a production of Wyoming Public Media.

Seattle Denver Arms (Instrumental) by Loch Lomond is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License. Based on a work at http://needledrop.co/artists/Loch-Lomond


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to Phineas Quimby and Dan Barrick this week for being participants in our experiment in radio deception. Also thanks to Cynthia Chris and to Elizabeth White, she and the rest of the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene that we reference earlier in the show, and have been really candid about their practices, in case you want to learn more about how they do it.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

S03|E02: The Accidental History of Solar Power & The Company Man

In this week's episode, solar power is all the rage these days, but how did it get its start? And what the heck is net-metering? Also we'll hear about the resurgence of a deadly form of black lung in coal country and why, despite the severity of these health hazards, it's not getting a lot of attention.

Note: This is an hour-long broadcast version of our show made especially for the radio. This show is made up of stories subscribers to the podcast have already heard so it won't show up in your podcast feed. If you'd like to support the work that we do, consider supporting NHPR, the NPR member station for the great state of New Hampshire, and the entity that pays our bills. Thanks!

Click on the individual segment titles to see photos, videos, and more!

Part 1 & 2

AccidentalHistoryofSolar.jpeg

The Accidental History of Solar Power

If you’re even the least bit interested in taking some sort of personal action on climate change, you inevitably wind up researching solar power. And when you research solar power, you come across an obscure, hard-to-parse, seemingly content free term: net metering. Buckle up folks, we're going full energy nerd.


Part 3

TheCompanyMan.jpeg

The Company Man

When he was just 38 years old, Mackie Branham Jr., a coal miner, was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, a debilitating and terminal form of black lung, a disease that was thought to be a relic of the past; a problem when coal mining was at its peak. In this episode we hear from Branham and his family, in a collaboration with Producer Benny Becker who reported on the resurgence of black lung in coal country. We'll look into why, despite the severity of the illness and the large number of miners being diagnosed, it's not getting a lot of attention.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

This week’s episode includes tracks from Mon Plaisir, Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Episode 35: Full Disclosure

Nature documentaries and wildlife films transport us to places in the world that still feel wild, but what if the wilderness they present is staged? What if, in order to capture nature’s unvarnished beauty and conflict, filmmakers have to engage in a bit of fakery? In this episode we examine how deception is used to enhance the drama of nature documentaries, from Disney’s Oscar-winning film White Wilderness, to the incredible footage featured in the BBC’s Planet Earth II. Plus, we own up to some of the production tricks we use to make this podcast. 

Nature Documentaries: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

I’d love to say that I’ve never used TV as a parental crutch, but there are days when I’m trying to work from home, or am just plain exhausted, when I’ll do anything to keep my 5-year old son distracted for a solid hour. As a form of dubious justification for letting my flat screen babysit, I’ll put on something “educational”—which usually means choosing something from Netflix’s extensive collection of nature documentaries. The BBC series Life is a household favorite, or the new Planet Earth II. The basic philosophy is that learning about porcupines is more valuable than learning about Pokémon, that watching bats is better than watching Batman.

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This clip was taken from the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

But then again, what’s so inherently valuable about the wildlife programs? Like all TV, the genre varies widely when it comes to quality. There’s the BBC stuff with the incredible “how-did-they-do-that?” shots, but there’s also the now infamous “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, a fake documentary that aired as part of Discovery Channel’s 2013 Shark Week.

“The question is not, is wildlife or nature programming educational,” says Cynthia Chris, author of Watching Wildlife.  “The question is, what is it teaching? Is it teaching us factual things that will help us care for and protect the environment? Or is it teaching things that will encourage us to fear and disdain and destroy the environment?”

I can hear you groaning from here. Why does everything involving the environment turn into a finger-wagging message about social responsibility? I hear you. I don’t want to take the fun and wonder out of nature documentaries. That’s what makes them so great! But there are some ways we can watch them a little more thoughtfully even if we’re watching a show about a giant fictional shark.

Teach Younger Kids to Get Savvy: Listen For the Sound of Deception

The best nature documentaries are able to get incredible close-up shots of animals - so close you might wonder, how the heck did producers capture that amazing sound? Sadly, the truth is that they probably didn’t. Wildlife filmmaker and author of Shooting in the Wild Chris Palmer will tell you that when you hear a bird flapping it’s wings, that’s likely sound engineer opening and closing an umbrella. (I suggest that you go try this one immediately.)

We're taking you behind the soundproof doors into the world of Earth Touch's audio experts as they practise the finicky art of Foley & sound design. See exactly what it takes to enhance or recreate nature's diverse sounds and bring a wildlife documentary to life.

A lion tearing into a freshly killed antelope? That’s a someone cracking some fresh celery in half.

Not everything is totally faked, but footage shot in slow motion or sped up through time-lapse photography doesn’t capture audio at all, which means that whatever you’re hearing was at least captured separately and added in post-production. Sometimes, sounds are even created that don’t exist in nature at all. Frank Scheuring is a sound mixer and editor, and president of Capital Post Production. He also worked on the first Planet Earth series. He says that if you see something, you expect to hear something too. “A jellyfish probably isn’t going to make a sound at all, but if there’s no sound there, it’s less believable. It’s really just enhancing reality, and trying to bring [the viewer] into the environment.”

Dave Birch, audio manager at Earth Touch explains the art of foley.

Once you accept the truth that most nature documentary sound effects aren’t authentic, it can be a pretty big mood-killer. Is NOTHING real? But once you get used to the idea, it can make for an interesting game: try guessing if the sound you’re hearing is fake or not fake. Underwater scene? Fake. Slow-motion? Fake. Teeny tiny bird? Probably fake.

If you really want to get into it with kids, collect some household items, turn the TV to mute, and try making your own sound effects!

Introduce the Idea That They Aren’t Getting the Whole Story

Even the most reputable nature documentaries often steer away from issues like climate change, or deforestation, implicitly depicting the wild places of the world as pristine or untouched by human influence. That’s part of what makes them so beautiful: there’s a dignity to the elegance of the natural world it that feels timeless.

But it’s also pretty misleading, and both filmmakers and environmental philosophers have argued it’s counter-productive.

“It’s important that films carry a conservation message, and part of that message should be that people are not separate from nature,” says Chris Palmer. Palmer specializes in IMAX films, and says that getting those pristine shots we love is getting increasingly harder to do. “It’s hard to get a shot without a boat in the background, without a car in the background, without smoke, you know - there’s signs of people everywhere.”

This behaviour has never been filmed before! Hatchling marine iguanas are attacked by snakes hunting on mass. This footage was filmed for the Islands episode of Planet Earth II.

One interesting way to enhance the educational opportunity of a nature documentary is to have a map or globe handy while you’re watching. Occasionally pause the film to look up places featured in the program. How big is this island of seemingly un-fragmented wilderness? How close is the nearest human settlement? How might your impression of the scene change if you knew there was a safari tour bus just off-screen? Look out for “behind-the-scenes” videos that help illustrate how programs were shot and produced. It’s strange to see camera people, but it gives you a better sense of how filmmakers use their craft to get the desired reaction from the viewer.

A behind the scenes look at the snake/iguana scene, which reveals that the filming was - for the most part - continuous, and that the behavior being filmed is very real… Even if the sound is not.

TV shows like Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” or “72 Cutest Animals” are a fun way for kids to learn about animal behaviors, and tend to feature rare or bizarre creatures that can really capture the imagination. The pangolin, which looks like a cross between an anteater and an armadillo, is arguably worth its appearance on Nat Geo’s “World’s Weirdest” series, but the fact that the pangolin is the most trafficked animal in the world goes unmentioned. According to the African Wildlife Foundation, some 100,000 pangolin are slaughtered every year for their scales. Two species of pangolin are listed as critically endangered.

This begs an important question for parents: is it enough that these programs build wonder for the natural world or must they also put a spotlight on pangolin poaching? I tend to think a light touch on the bad news is the best approach. Research has shown that exposing children to calamities beyond their control when they’re too young may actually cause them to become fearful and even more disconnected from the natural world. But by remaining alert to what is left out of these documentaries, it can help you to connect the dots once your kid is ready.

As They Get Older, Teach Them About How Things Have Changed!

Some of the “classic” wildlife documentaries of the past are just as dramatic as anything you’ll see on the BBC, but not always in the ways you might expect. Jacque Costeau is remembered as a charismatic oceanographer, explorer, and co-inventor of the aqualung. He is also celebrated as an early conservationist who believed in protecting the quality and life of our oceans. Frankly though, his films are hilariously cheesy for modern audiences, filled with pulpy adventure narration and unnecessary shots of Cousteau’s bare-chested crew lazing about his vessel. Aside from the claymation fish, Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic is actually a pretty good recreation.

And yet, watching someone known for being a pioneer conservationist, Cousteau reflected the values of his day. One scene from the Academy award winning documentary The Silent World is especially shocking: Cousteau’s ship strikes a young whale, injuring it badly. The crew decides to end the whale’s misery (their words) by shooting it in the head. The now deceased whale’s blood attracts a number of sharks, who start shredding it to bits. It’s already a gruesome scene, but escalates to new levels of horror when Cousteau’s crew start “avenging” the whale (even though they were the ones that killed it) by hooking sharks onto the boat and butchering them with axes. The scene lasts several minutes, and is narrated by Cousteau himself without a hint of irony.

(Now that I think about it,  this scene is pretty graphic, so it might be best to do this exercise once your kids are teenagers.)

The Silent World “Whale and Shark scene” 

As abhorrent as this scene is now, it tells you a lot about how much our understanding of the natural world has changed in the last century. This film was shot before the famous “Save the Whales” campaign, before the establishment of the EPA, even before the founding of the Humane Society of the United States. Even for an ardent conservationist like Cousteau, sharks were viewed as killers and so the world was considered to be better off without them.

When nature documentaries during this era weren’t killing animals on screen for entertainment, they were sometimes doing it behind the scenes as part of film production. Disney’s True Life Adventure series is one of the worst culprits, which you’ll discover in Bob McKeown’s excellent documentary on the subject for the CBC’s The Fifth Estate. For older kids and adults looking to pull the curtain back on early nature documentary production, this is a must watch.

This is Bob McKeown’s original documentary on animal cruelty in Hollywood for the 5th Estate, which includes his investigation into White Wilderness.

Final Thoughts: Are Nature Documentaries a Form of Journalism... or Entertainment?

Examining the natural world is, in part, the vocation of scientists and conservationists, and so there is a distinctly empirical flavor to nature documentaries. As opposed to non-fiction films that focus on contentious social or political issues, nature - it would seem - is simple, even in all of its evolutionary complexity. But nature documentaries, rooted in science as they may appear, are not bound by the same ethical considerations that science or journalism are.

I asked Chris Palmer, do wildlife filmmakers see themselves as journalists or entertainers?  “A bit of both,” he told me. “They have to be entertainers. If they don’t entertain their audience the ratings and box office numbers will be low, they won’t get rehired, and their career will be in tatters.” On the other hand, Palmer says, to call something a documentary is to claim that the work is accurate, truthful, and was responsibly produced. “The bottom line is that their are no rules; each filmmaker approaches this challenge in their own individual way.”

Elizabeth White, one of the producers for the new BBC series Planet Earth II, says that their filmmakers receive ethics training - something Palmer has openly advocated for. When I asked her how she sees herself, she said, “as a scientist and filmmaker who is trying to engage audiences through wildlife storytelling.”  

By teaching your kids what’s real and what’s not when they watch nature documentaries, you’ll be equipping them to see the world with a healthy dose of skepticism. And preparing them to enter a world that won’t cleanly delineate between facts and fiction for them.

Also… if you do this right, they shouldn’t believe the megalodons are still alive.

Here's a handy flow chart to help you watch documentaries with a careful eye. | credit: logan shannon


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Taylor Quimby and Sam Evans-Brown, with help from, Maureen McMurray, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez. Logan Shannon was our digital producer.

A big thanks to Chris Palmer and Bob McKeown - more than thirty years on, Cruel Camera is still an amazing piece of journalism. A few years ago, they did an update on the show, and interviewed David Attenborough, and looked at how much has changed in wildlife filmmaking since the 80s.

Thanks also to Cynthia Chris. Her book Watching Wildlife traces more of the history of the wildlife genre, and digs into some really thorny philosophical questions about how we use animals as a proxy to reinforce cultural norms. We didn’t have time to get into it here, but it’s some heady stuff.

And special thanks to Elizabeth White and the BBC. She and the folks at Planet Earth have actually put out some behind-the-scenes footage of how they made the iguana snake scene, and some other amazing moments from the series. They’ve been really candid about their practices, so we’re not the only ones that are big on disclosure.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Mon Plaisir. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from this artist.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 28: The Accidental History of Solar Power

If you’re even the least bit interested in taking some sort of personal action on climate change, you inevitably wind up researching solar power. And when you research solar power, you come across an obscure, hard-to-parse, seemingly content free term: net metering. Buckle up folks, we're going full energy nerd.

Photo: Greta Rybus

If you’ve heard of net metering, I challenge you to come up with a definition of what it is in the next 15 seconds; I bet you can’t. And yet, this indecipherable term has been the center of some of the most heated energy battles of recent years. California, Nevada, Iowa, Texas, Maine, Vermont, New York, Utah, Hawaii, and Massachusetts have all struggled with it. The fight over net metering in Nevada even attracted the attention of both of the main Democratic presidential hopefuls, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

This battle is happening all over the country, state-by-state, and each fight has its own local flavor when it comes to this argument.

But what the heck is net metering? Why are we so worked up about something that, on its face, looks to be nothing more than a simple billing mechanism? And this is the question that gets me interested: Where the heck did this fight come from?

The answer to this last question is that net metering is something of a historical accident, born at the cross-roads of necessity and ingenuity, but without much forethought.

So read on, this is the accidental history of net metering.

The Father of Solar

Like me, Steven Strong is an energy nerd. Unlike me, he’s also a talented engineer and innovator. He’s a guy who, when Toyota came out with the Prius got to work hacking the thing, installing a lithium-ion battery back and turning it into a plug-in electric car, years before the car company was ready to do the same thing.

His office in central Massachusetts is small and unassuming, and when I met him there and commented on this, one of his employees smiled and said, “You’d never know that this is where ‘the father of solar’ works.”

Steven got his start as a young engineer working on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline in the years of the Carter administration, but then there was the whole Arab oil embargo, there was a scandal where contractors were falsifying some of the required safety measures on the pipeline, and so he resigned and returned to Boston to become and architect and found his own solar design company.

Back in the seventies, solar photovoltaic, which is what you’re probably thinking about when I say solar panels, was something like 65 times more expensive than it is today, and electricity was cheap.

This was in the early seventies, when solar power, besides being on satellites in outer space, wasn’t really a thing, yet. But Steven did manage to get work. In particular, he landed the contract to put a solar array, one of the first of its kind, onto a 286-unit, federally-subsidized, low-income housing complex. The building looks kind of like a big college dorm: it’s brick, and it’s pretty unremarkable looking.  

aN EARLY PHOTO OF THE BUILDING, SOLAR PANELS STILL INTACT. 

aN EARLY PHOTO OF THE BUILDING, SOLAR PANELS STILL INTACT. 

hERE'S THE BUILDING TODAY.

hERE'S THE BUILDING TODAY.

At this time, commercially available solar power was used to heat hot water. (To oversimplify, the systems were basically rows of pipes, painted black, that allowed the sun’s rays to heat up the water inside.) The solar system he installed was one of the largest solar thermal systems in New England, and he estimates it met something like 80% of the building’s annual hot water requirements.  

But back in the seventies, solar photovoltaic, which is what you’re probably thinking about when I say solar panels, was something like 65 times more expensive than it is today, and electricity was cheap. But Steven Strong, who always wanted to push the envelope, convinced the developer of this building to let him install a couple of photovoltaic panels up there too.

But there was this question: how do you wire them up?

The Accidental Part

Whenever the sun is shining, obviously the electricity from the panels would go towards running all the stuff—water pump, hot water heaters, lights and fridges—in the building.

But then what happens when the sun’s not shining? Or what happens if the sun is shining and there’s nothing going on in the building? Today we take the answer to these questions for granted. We assume that when you’re not using it, the extra energy can just feed out into the grid, but when Steve Strong was wiring up this building, that was not a given.

He decided to configure the system so when there’s no sun, the building would buy electricity just like any other building, and the little dials on the electric meter would roll in one direction.

But if the sun was shining, and the appliances in the building weren’t using any energy, the electricity would flow out onto the grid, and the little dials on the meter would just roll in the other direction…backwards.

“It was intuitive, and it was almost just like, that’s just the way it should be. We’re producing electrons that are just as valuable as the ones delivered by the coal plant or the heavy residual fuel oil driven plant, and so it just made sense, Steven told me.

He didn’t ask for permission from the utility to feed electricity back into the grid. He didn’t show them a design and say here’s what I’d like to do. The developers told him they would handle all of that.

There’s one thing in your career that you should learn early, which is that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.

“And it turned out that they didn’t say anything to the utility purposefully,” Steven said. “So when the system was complete and ready to start up, one of the brothers came up into the mechanical penthouse in the top of the building and said, ‘how are we doing with the solar, Steven?’”

“And I said, ‘Well, Peter it’s ready to go. We just need to get permission from the utility to connect with the grid.’ And he threw the switch and said, ‘that’s OK, we’ll take care of that.’ And he told me at the time, ‘There’s one thing in your career that you should learn early, which is that it’s better to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.’”

(I will note here, at least one of these developers, went on to have an extremely checkered history, accusations of rape, drug charges, and other really crazy stuff.)

Instead of asking permission, they had a big ribbon cutting ceremony. They invited the head of the national renewable energy lab, all the senators and congresspeople from Massachusetts, and even President Carter. The President was planning on coming, but they put the kibosh on his appearance at the last minute because there was a strike at a nearby shipyard and the Secret Service told him to stay away.

And at this event, a torrent of important people stood up and spoke about how great the building was, how forward thinking it was, and how it would be the way of the future. Then, the last person to talk was an executive from the utility.

“He basically praised how innovative the solar systems were and how forward thinking the developers were and that was it,” said Steven. Afterwards Steven said the developer told him, “‘See I told you, I would take care of that... it wouldn’t be an issue.’ And he was right of course.”

And that, ladies and gentleman, was the birth of a little policy called net metering.

From Net Metering to “Net Zero”

That is also what the name means: when you’re producing, the meter runs in one direction and when you’re consuming, the meter runs in the other direction, so the practice is called “net metering” because you’re billed for your net consumption.

Those first grid-integrated solar photovoltaic panels didn’t last particularly long. They were blown off the roof of the building after little more than a year, according to the building’s manager George Picewick. The solar thermal panels heated the building’s water for more than 20 years, though, before they had to be removed because of a lack of maintenance.

And for Steven Strong, this project kicked off years of work on net metered buildings that catapulted his work into the spotlight. Very shortly afterwards, MIT came calling. They asked Steven to help them build a house that would be “energy independent,” by which they meant that it would generate as much energy as it used, even though it still relied on the grid. Today such a house is called a “net-zero” home. This house was built in Carlisle, Massachusetts and was on the cover of magazines like Popular Science, and written about in publications worldwide.

IMG_7629.JPG
The cover of Popular Science from September of 1981 features the Impact 2000 house.

Because of all this attention, a local utility, Boston Edison, reached out to Steven Strong. They wanted to build a net-zero house too, and they called it the Impact 2000 House. This house was super-insulated, all electric (heated by a geothermal heat-pump), and all bedecked with solar panels.

It was also a public relations coup for the utility, which had been beset by protests focused on its new nuclear power plant. Steven Strong was also contacted by the producers of This Old House who decided to do the entire fifth season of the show about the construction of the Impact 2000 house.

Solar power was seen as something that a few tech enthusiasts and environmental zealots would do, but certainly it wasn’t expected to spread to the masses.

After that house, another utility asked Steven Strong to do a whole neighborhood of net metered solar homes, and the story of this weird billing trick just expanded from there. Before long Massachusetts regulators officially put a rule about net metering on the books, and other states followed suit, some even passed laws that formally established the practice. Now it’s allowed in 41 states, plus Washington, DC.

And for years not only was it totally non-controversial: solar power was seen as something that a few tech enthusiasts and environmental zealots would do, but certainly it wasn’t expected to spread to the masses. In hindsight this seems short-sighted, that a policy with the potential to shape the future of something as important as the electric grid would be allowed to grow so organically and without any real vetting or thought.

It was just a historical accident, that just sort of happened, kind of under the radar.

And Then Came SolarCity

Until, suddenly, solar started to get cheap. In 1980, a solar cell cost $30 a watt. Today, it’s more like 30 cents a watt. And starting in the mid-2000s, a bunch of really ambitious and well-financed companies started saying, Hey… we can make some money doing this. So from 2009 to 2010, the amount of solar in the US doubled. It doubled again from 2010 to 2011. It doubled again from 2011 to 2013 and from 2013 to today it’s on track to triple… again.

And some of this rapid growth came not just from large-scale solar farms (though much of it is that), but from people putting panels on their roofs, and reducing—and sometimes eliminating—their electric bills. That was made possible by net metering, and I think it's fair to say that back in the seventies, the electric companies did not see this coming.

And now they’re starting to push back. Which brings us to the litany of states where net metering became an intense and public energy policy debate that started us off in this story.

And why is it such a fight? Well, it all has to do with how we pay for electricity.

The utilities argue that net metered customers are using the grid to power their homes at night or on cloudy days, but they aren’t paying for the grid. This then means there is a smaller pool of people paying for the grid, and that smaller pool has to pay more.

Those who are sympathetic to this argument sometimes describe it as wealth redistribution.

Back when Thomas Edison built the first electric power stations, there were no meters, so he actually billed people a monthly fee based on how many light bulbs they had.

“It’s a… taking from the people who have not so much and giving it to the people who have more,” said Michael Harrington, who used to be one of the regulators of New Hampshire’s electric companies, and is now on the board of the New England Ratepayers Association, which advocates for lower electricity costs. “So it’s a reverse distribution of wealth from the way we normally do things in the United States, and I don’t think that’s right.”

This (in very rough terms) is how utility rate structures work: a utility is a big company that invests a ton of money in poles and wires, and they also pay for energy to send across those poles and wires. Then, they take all of their customers and they divide the cost of all of those expenses up between all of them and they spread it around, charging different kinds of customers slightly different kinds of rates based on how they use electricity.

It has basically been like that since the first electric meter was invented: back when Thomas Edison built the first electric power stations, there were no meters, so he actually billed people a monthly fee based on how many lightbulbs they had. The entire business model is based on a piece of equipment that is more than 100 years old, and the utilities argue that under that business model, if 50 percent of the people in the United States went solar and started net metering, a big chunk of the money that they’re saving winds up being money that’s not going towards the poles and wires.

But What if Solar is Saving us Money?

Except, we’re not 100% sure that’s true.

There’s another former New Hampshire regulator, Cliff Below (he’s also the former state lawmaker who wrote the initial net metering law here in New Hampshire) who argues that solar might be doing more good than harm

“Net Metering was initially thought of as a rough justice,” he told me in an interview. He said when net metering first came along there was this belief that, “there were benefits particularly to solar, because increasingly for New England, peak demand was being driven by air conditioning loads, which was driven by sunlight landing on buildings and heating things up.”

To understand this argument, you have to understand that even though on your electric bill you pay the same amount for every unit of energy, all electrons are not created equal. In reality, every five minutes there is a new auction for energy and so every five minutes we’ve got a new price for energy. When demand is low, prices are low, and they can actually go negative, usually at night. (As in power plants will pay us so they don’t have to shut down.) When demand is high prices can be insane: 100 times higher than normal.

But again, the utilities take all of those costs, they average them all out, they divide them by their customers, and you never see that variation on your bill.

So the thing is: if solar panels are producing at times of day that are really high value—sunny, hot, air conditioning heavy days—the electrons coming off the panels might be worth substantially more (on average) than all of the electrons on the grid (on average). And maybe, just maybe, even the very generous rate net metered customers are getting doesn’t fully reimburse them for what they’re making.

There’s more to this argument. If done properly, solar might reduce the need to build new power lines, substations or other infrastructure, but most of those other facets stem from this same principal. Solar tends to produce at times when the grid is most in need of electrons.

So How Can We Know Who’s Right?

“These problems are often put out there as very difficult problems to solve. They’re actually not, in my view, that difficult to address, but we need to just put all of the numbers on the table.” That’s the assessment of Jessika Trancik, she’s a professor of energy studies at MIT.

Jessika’s point is that we can answer this question for every individual solar array if you look at the data. When is it producing? What are the power prices at that moment? What kind of neighborhood is it in on the grid? What’s the load on that circuit? Is it helping on that circuit or is it hurting on that circuit?

You can take all that data and she says, “look at each different location and understand how the situation what the situation looks like today and how that’s likely to change over time. But I think that’s all very doable.”

But in order to do this, you need the data. That means installing smart meters on solar arrays so we can see the minute-by-minute production of the panels. It means getting the data from the utilities to know if the solar panels are producing at a time when they are needed in the given neighborhood that they are in.

And it could also mean paying solar producers prices that make more sense: as in prices that are different for different times of day.

Here in New Hampshire, people are arguing about what to do with the state’s net metering program, and most of the fixes that people are proposing are pretty blunt instruments. In my opinion, they are kind of disappointingly blunt.

If you’re a net metered customer in New Hampshire, you’re getting paid about seventeen cents per kilowatt hour. So seventeen cents is the starting point.

The way we pay for electricity doesn’t reflect the way electricity is actually generated and the actual costs that are incurred.

The utilities say, you should get the same price that other power-plants get: which is more like four to six cents a kilowatt hour—one third as much. Solar people generally don’t want regulators to touch net metering, and they  want them to keep the rate at seventeen cents. And then you’ve got a range of people in the middle who seem to be just picking a number somewhere in between the two. “Oh maybe we could make it 12 cents.”

For the Jessika Tranciks of the world, (steely energy economist academics), this is not really getting at the root problem, which is: the way we pay for electricity doesn’t reflect the way electricity is actually generated and the actual costs that are incurred. And there is one proposal on the table in New Hampshire that would start to shift that model.

“It is clearly inappropriate in today’s technological age to continue to charge people the same price for electricity 24/7, when the cost of providing people electricity varies, sometimes by orders of magnitude, depending on the time of day and the time of year,” said Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate. Don’s job is to watch out for people who pay electric bills, he’s looking out for the little guy.

Don wants solar customers to have the option to move to a Time-of-Use rate, a rate that would pay you more if your solar is cranking out electrons during high price times, like later in the afternoon. On the flip side, this rate would also mean that you pay more, if you’re using more energy in the afternoon. To make this really simple, every day there would be a higher price between 2pm and 8pm.

This is cracking open the door to a totally different way of paying for energy. Instead of abiding by this crazy illusion that every electron is worth the same, it acknowledges that when demand is high, electricity gets expensive, and maybe we should let people know that.

How Far Could This Go?

Jessika Trancik, from MIT, wants to take that concept even a step further. Remember, every five minutes, there’s a new auction and a new energy price every five minutes. She thinks we should all have a little display in our houses that says, here’s the price of energy, right now. In her mind that price could change every hour, and it could be capped, so customers are sheltered from the most extreme fluctuations of the grid.

In this world, every home, not just solar homes, would be outfitted with a little display telling you what the price of electricity is at that moment. Perhaps it could be color-coded, to give you a clue about whether that price is high or low. With that information, we could all make choices about when to run our driers or our dishwashers, and maybe manufacturers would make devices that could read that display and automatically respond: flipping on in the middle of the night, say, if electricity prices drop to zero or lower. In this world, solar producers would get paid based on what the grid price is from moment to moment, and the whole question of shifting costs from rich to poor would be rendered moot.

Of course, this dream relies on a lot of technology that simply has not yet been deployed, may well be very expensive, and needs to be protected from cyber-attacks… all of which are profound concerns for the utilities that are being asked to do this.

It’s high time for everybody to take a look and see what a rational bit of well-designed public policy would be.

But for Don Kreis, the consumer advocate, a policy like net metering—one that was created accidentally, without forethought or design, and without regard for the markets it would impact—cannot stand forever.

“The fact is, it wasn’t like the commission on uniform state laws got together and said, ‘Let’s design a net metering statute that will promote the development of distributed generation in this really logical rigorous way,’” Don said, laughing in his office, “No! It just happened by accident!”

Without a moment’s pause he continued. “And it’s high time for everybody to take a look and see what a rational bit of well-designed public policy would be.”

So that’s one way the world could change. Or we could just go back to billing based on how many light bulbs you own. There’s always that.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon

Thanks this week to Bob Johnstone, whose book Switching to Solar led me to Steven Strong, and to Haskell Werlin who rushed back from a funeral to talk solar policy with me.

Music this week was from Jahzzar, Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder